Another Standing Ovation

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

It has happened again. Another round of applause for a pastor whose public ministry has ended in turmoil.

Three months ago Andy Savage stood before the congregation of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and confessed to a “sexual incident” which had occurred two decades earlier. He wasn’t unveiling a secret, as the informed circle of confidants had been diverse and influential. But the incident hadn’t been a matter of public information until that moment. In response to Savage’s story, the congregation rose and delivered a standing ovation of support.

Leadership guru Ed Stetzer wrote that the applause was heard around the world because it was wrong. A snowball was rolling and a month later Savage resigned his position with no new accusations of misconduct and no new details about the old one except for insight about the way it was mishandled, which did not bring healing and closure to the victim.

A cultural tidal wave continues to sweep across the ecclesiastical landscape. Two days ago Bill Hybels stood before Willow Creek Church near Chicago and resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Unlike Andy Savage, Bill Hybels vehemently denied charges of sexual misconduct, labeling some of them false and others misleading. Once again the congregation rose and gave their beleaguered pastor a standing ovation. Probably someone will condemn the standing ovation as wrong. I don’t know if it was wrong. I wasn’t there. But it was another ovation that will be heard around the world.

No doubt Hybels’ accusers are irked. One of them wrote that she wasn’t looking for a resignation. She merely wanted an acknowledgement of the truth and proper accountability. The truth may never become public information. Nearly all concerned parties were part of the inner circle of leadership. Bloggers are taking sides. Detractors are gloating. It looks really ugly.

The accusers’ roles in leadership lend them credibility. They speak about fearing Hybels’ dominant personality. I can hardly imagine the dynamics of leadership at that level. The size of the church I serve is less than one tenth of one percent of Willow Creek. I’ve encountered numerous conflicts where accusations seemed utterly absurd to me. But the people making accusations really believed them. Even in a tiny church, signals can get crossed, motives misinterpreted, and facts distorted.

Many years ago in another place I was accused of being pure evil, thick headed, and a numskull. That was merely the preamble to a list of accusations a church worker presented to me. Her story was so different from mine I could hardly believe we were talking about the same events. Yet there we were. Without a doubt I knew her story was wildly distorted and twisted by rage. But she believed it. So did the board members she told it to. They never consulted me. Fortunately, the accusations were nothing sexual or unlawful. But in the end, I resigned my position. So I speak from a little experience in this kind of “he-said, she-said” conflict. Maybe that’s why all this sad news has hooked my attention. It’s a #MeToo moment.

I know just a little about the deception of power. I can dominate a conversation and sometimes a decision in a small church. A revered founding pastor of a megachurch has exponentially more power. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bill Hybels was not fully aware or dismissive of the massive force of intimidation his associates endured. It can be knee-knocking when you get cross-ways with the guy who holds your career in his hands. My experience with these kinds of conflicts (on a much smaller scale) is that the truth often is somewhere in the middle.

In my own horror story, I can look back and see how I had made mistakes along the way. I had no idea of the hidden drama or my role in it while it was unfolding. But afterwards the firestorm hit me with a vengeance. Though I was “innocent” of the accusations, I was not guiltless. I had made naive mistakes which allowed accusations to take shape in the mind of another person. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bill Hybels is guilty of much less than his accusers believe, yet much more than he realized or acknowledged. There are other possibilities, too. Our depravity is deep enough that an articulate, conscientious, spiritually-aware man who professes innocence could be covering up subtle sin. The accusers could be completely right. On the other hand, our depravity also is broad enough that the accusers could be confused about what actually took place. The charges may be false or the result of a misunderstanding, exactly as Hybels says. Moral fog is thick in the context of conflict. It’s hard to see what’s really happening.

Mistrust and anger distort truth. Every leader knows his actions and words will be misunderstood and interpreted in the worst possible way by people who are suspicious and mistrusting. Not only does it happen. It’s unavoidable. Jesus is a prime example. He was constantly accused of doing things he didn’t do, such as casting out demons by the power of the devil.

Hybel’s resignation won’t end the conflict. Trust has been broken. The church is likely to go silent and handle the conflict as an internal affair. I hope they sort it all out. But I don’t have to know about it. We don’t need to sling any more mud in public.

One final thought: I have felt intimidation in the presence of my district superintendent, especially when I was a young pastor and new in ministry. I struggled with how to relate to an authority figure. We were both men. How much more complex would it have been if gender had been a factor in the power equation? At Willow Creek, where women are placed in all positions of governance, leaders must deal with the opposite sex in positions of power. Bill Hybels was the ultimate authority figure. Is it possible the unpleasant sexual dynamics at Willow Creek were an unintended consequence of egalitarianism?


Sharpening iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

I’ve been part of a men’s discipleship group at New Life for five years. It was initiated by two young men who were new to the church at the time. The group didn’t move in the direction they wanted and eventually they left both the men’s group and the church. Subsequently they also moved out of the area. But the group they had planted remained and thrived in the lives of four men. All of us are older. All of us are elders. Occasionally others will drop in for a visit, but four men have made a commitment and often experience spiritual highlights early on a Saturday morning.

The meetings are usually unplanned without designated leadership, but they follow a predictable format. We just talk. We are comfortable around one another and there is high personal trust. So the guys open up without fear of rejection or condemnation. But we challenge one another directly. The most common topic by far is politics. Closely related is the culture war. That often leads to the challenge of evangelism in a changing world.

In many of these discussions I remain silent for fifteen or twenty minutes while the guys vent. Eventually they ask me what I think or I finally say, “May I address this with you?” Then it’s my turn to vent. We open the Scriptures and God leads us through a remarkable time of insight and depth. Sometimes we go on for two hours. Many times we walk out of the session praising God and saying to ourselves, “Where did all those insights come from? We didn’t plan it, but God delivered. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. God is so good to us!”

Over time, no matter where we began our conversations, we kept arriving at the same conclusions from our time together: We need to change our unwritten core values of status quo and power. We started putting the ideas on a portable white board. They were radical changes, like stop judging others or stop trying to control others. We talked about radical acceptance and service from a position of powerlessness. Scary stuff. Sometimes other people would look at the list on the white board and comment, “I don’t like it!”

That’s understandable. I’m not so sure we like it ourselves, either, because our stubborn old values continue to assert themselves with force. I keep dragging out the white board. I point to it and say, “We’ve talked about this a dozen times from several passages in Scripture. This is what we always conclude, right?”

“Right,” they say. But it’s hard to put it into action. We’re still suspicious of outsiders. We are still quick to point out the faults of others. We still want to be in control of election results. We’re still angry about cultural changes. For the past year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the men’s group is stuck. Where’s the life change?

Two weeks ago, God gave me a breakthrough. It turns out we were off track and have been for a long time. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Others saw the problem and I didn’t. I’ll write about it next time.

What have you forgotten lately?

The pastor of New Life Church has some strange personality quirks. He’s forgetful. He can be so focused on a given task that he misses subtle social cues or works past a scheduled appointment. At the other extreme, he can be so scatterbrained that he becomes forgetful. Sometimes he’s working at the church and discovers he needs something at the house. Maybe it’s a book or a flash drive. So I run around the corner and rush in the back door. Then I get distracted—usually by something delicious in the kitchen— and return to the church without the book or flash drive.

It works the other way, too. Like several in our congregation, we get our drinking water from the church. Sometimes Carol sends me over to the church for water. I arrive with a gallon jug swinging from each arm. Then I think of something to do in the office and return home a few minutes later—without the water.

Leaving on long car trips are particularly adventurous in our family. We forget things so often that we congratulate ourselves when we don’t forget anything. Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back too soon. Through the years we’ve forgotten food, water, wallets & purses, cameras, audio CDs, coats, gloves, sunglasses, boots, jumper cables, tents, towels, matches, money…. On our last trip to Ohio, we forgot a phone charger cord at Carol’s parents’ house. We’ll pick it up on our next trip—if we remember.

Before you get too high and mighty about your good habits, you should admit you forget some things, too. In fact, the best story I know about forgetting something happened to an elder in our first church. They had seven kids, five still at home. One Sunday they arrived for worship like they always did, in a little hatchback sedan. The two youngest girls rode in the trunk. True story. That day they left church without their youngest daughter, who was about eight years old at the time. This was before cell phones, of course, and they lived in another town. So Carol and I took Rebekah home and fed her lunch, laughing the whole time, while her unsuspecting family drove all the way home, only to discover they had forgotten something rather important in their trunk.

We’ve never stopped laughing about that, but the truth is, some of our worst moments come when we forget something. I’m sorry to report I’ve even slammed my fist into the steering wheel and said a bad word. If you do that, too, you’re taking yourself too seriously. Take it from one who knows. Been there, done that. And I have several T-shirts to prove it.

If there’s more than one of you in the car when you’ve forgotten something, this is when the blame game begins.

“I thought you were going to bring that.”

“No, I thought you had it. That was your responsibility.”

That’s just the part of the conversation I can print. Have you ever blown everything out of proportion and lost something you couldn’t afford to lose around your family—your temper?

People who take themselves too seriously don’t take God seriously enough. They just can’t stand it when they make mistakes. That’s me and that’s you. And it’s also Jesus’ disciples. They took a trip and they forgot something important.

Mark 8:14—The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.

Carol and I went to Montevideo this past Tuesday, intending to eat lunch in the car. True to form, we forgot the food. But it was no big deal. We just ate a little later when we got home. It wasn’t that easy for the disciples. They weren’t on a one hour excursion away from home. Rather, they were on an extended trip out on a lake. No McDonald’s, no lunchboxes, no fishing poles. And no chance to turn around and grab the grub. It’s pretty obvious what happened next: the blame game. They started complaining and arguing. Then one of them, probably Judas, held up a loaf of bread, waved it at them teasingly and said with an impish smile: “Hey fellows, look what I brought!”

The conversation went downhill from there. It became a window into their hearts. Then Jesus stepped up and challenged them with one statement and eight questions. The questions were designed to help them understand the statement. Yes, the disciples had forgotten something important. But it wasn’t bread. Food was just the conversation starter. They forgot something else. It’s something we forget, too. Yes, the disciples forgot the food, just like we often do. More importantly, they forgot that the bread of life was with them in the boat.

When the bread of life is with you, everything changes. So why do we keep forgetting that?

We’ll talk about it this Sunday.

Losing by Winning

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9

Last night I won an online auction. But my heart told me I’d lost. Maybe I should explain.

The auction was for a computer. My old computer [this one] was a bottom-of-the-line door buster special six or seven years ago. It still works as long as we don’t power it off or allow it to go into sleep mode. But if it doesn’t wake up, I’ll lose my latest work when it’s not backed up. That’s not worth the risk.

So for the past couple weeks I’ve been checking out new computers. The ones that caught my eye were bigger, faster, and more expensive–about $800. They had ports and connections and features I didn’t even know existed, such as a blu-ray writer. That would be a major purchase at our house, but I planned to do it.

Then last night I happened across the end of an auction for a two year old off-brand computer with dings and scuffs at a fraction of the cost. It didn’t have any bells and whistles, but it still had twice the processor speed and six times the RAM as my old machine. I knew it was cheap, but I didn’t think it would really sell that low. So on a whim I put down the minimum increase at the last minute, expecting to discover that I had been outbid all along.

Wrong. I won the auction. And I was disappointed. Now I won’t be able to buy the nicer machine with the bells and whistles. When I told my wife I didn’t really want it, she replied, “Then why did you bid?”

Why do wives ask hard questions like that?

Here’s a harder question: “Why didn’t I want it?” After all, this computer should do everything I need for basic computing except video editing (which may be a real issue).

An answer to that harder question is tucked away in 1 John 2:15, which says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.”  I bought under the influence of the lust of the eyes. I won, but I lost because I wanted a fancier computer. My heart whispered, “Not enough.”

That’s why I can’t trust my heart. It’s deceitful and selfish. It always wants more. That doesn’t mean it would have been wrong to buy a better computer. Owning nice things are fine, but we’re in trouble when nice things own us.

Maybe I’ll keep looking. I don’t know. But I do know I can’t trust my heart.

How about you? Do you trust your heart?